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Summer 2009 - BOOK REVIEW by Laura McCullough
In the Garden of Men: Considering Andre Dubus III's "The Garden of Last Days", and the Sins of the Fathers, Including His Own
A novel by Andre Dubus III

Until recently, the son of deceased short fiction writer Andre Dubus II, Andre Dubus III, was considered a writerís writer, a master of the short story. Since his fatherís death, his second novel, The House of Sand and Fog was made into a very successful movie after having been nominated as a National Book Award finalist. But the younger Dubus didnít come to this fast or easily.

When his father left, Andreís family Ė his sister, brother, and mother Ė descended into difficult times as many families have after divorce. Andre had a hard and angry young life, and speaks of this violence in the communities outlying Boston. He was, essentially, abandoned. His father didnít die, but left, and Andre was on his own.

He eventually came to writing (as many in his extended and rather extraordinarily gifted family have), and speaks of his father as one of many influences on him, but by no means the most important. He never says a bad word about his dad in public though his dad had a rather notorious life and it could not have been easy for the younger Andre.

After his first collection of short stories, The Cage Keeper, Dubus published his first novel, Bluesman. Eventually, the book The House of Sand and Fog and the movie jettisoned the younger Dubus out of the staid life of private, literary writer and into a world his father never really knew. House was widely revered for its exploration of the confluence of cultures and classes, and Dubus has done it again with his new book, The Garden of Last Days (Norton, 2008). A multi-perspective novel set in Florida during the few days run up to 911, Dubus sets several charactersí collisions with each other into motion and exfoliates their gender, class, culture, and religion to expose their universal motivations, fears, failings, and hopes. One of its main characters is based on one of the 911 terrorists; another is a single-mom strip club dancer.

A multi-perspective novel set in Florida during the few days run up to 911, Dubus sets several characters' collisions with each other into motion and exfoliates their gender, class, culture, and religion to expose their universal motivations, fears, failings, and hopes.

Like his father, Andre Dubus III has the ability to pay very close attention to his inner bullshit detector, to hear what people really say behind shuttered windows, to know how they respond to certain stimuli, and this ability doesnít stop at class, race or gender barriers. In fact, both father and son are praised for their rendering of the female psyche on the page with neither romantic, male fantasies, nor with patriarchal protectiveness. Their women are sexy, smart, stupid, aggressive, sympathetic, but equivocal. They waver; they fight back; they fail; they survive. People first, character first, whether female or foreign.

There are two rape scenes in the younger Dubusí new novel both rendered quite credibly. Dubus doesnít back off from the violence that women experience, but they survive them in a way that the men in the novel donít. When asked about this in a recent interview, Dubus said, ďI wonder if thatís sort of a reflection on my belief that women really are stronger. I think that women are stronger, they really are.Ē

The female characters in Garden face many difficulties including rape, abandonment, widowhood, sexual exploitation, and, central to the plot of the story, the lack of support as a parent, the loss of a child, and then the Stateís interference in one of the main characterís parental rights. In the end, however, all of the women have survived, struggled on, maintained. April, the main character, has successfully left prostitution, and she has, essentially, the quintessential American life: husband with a good job, house in the burbs, raising her child. Pretty good considering the rocky ride sheíd been on.

Conversely, the three male characters, AJ, Bassam, and Lonnie donít meet with very good ends. AJ ends up in prison for letting himself get caught in an unsupportable act that he defines as kindness, but is really misguided. Bassam is a young terrorist about to participate in the day now referred to in American culture simply as 911, but he uncertain, innocent, virginal both literally and metaphorically. Lonnie, the bouncer, is educated, the opposite in many ways of Bassam, but heís jaded and unable to move outside the narrow choices heís made. In the end, he makes a choice that is so limited, so macho, that its result is forgone.

Clearly, a theme Dubus is working here is that gender role expectations, while vividly dangerous to women, are insidiously dangerous to men. While The Garden of Last Days is being talked about as another in the growing body of 911 literature, the large public violence never happens in the book. Instead, the book is riddled with private, small acts of violence, and it is this accrual, unaccounted for in history books, that really leads up to the large, century-defining, culture-shifting violence.

While the personal violence to the women is horrific, it is somehow absorbed and transmuted. One rape, for example, results in the birth of AJ, who is central to the novelís plot. It is this passing down of violence that seems to be at the core of the work, and the women survive the violence, while the male characters revisit, perpetuate, or are destroyed by it.

This issue of male archetypes and the violence of male culture pervades Dubus IIIís work. It is in his fatherís work to some extent, as well, but it is more central to the son. It is interesting, therefore, to consider the two Dubus men in terms of the fraught nature of what is passed from father to son: clearly, writing talent, whatever that means, whether itís curiosity or drive or the ability to chronicle the voices behind oneís own, but also the fatherís sins, as in the biblical reference.

This issue of male archetypes and the violence of male culture pervades Dubus III's work. It is in his father's work to some extent, as well, but it is more central to the son. It is interesting, therefore, to consider the two Dubus men in terms of the fraught nature of what is passed from father to son ...

Dubus senior was famously male, a flaming heterosexual, one of those men who loves women, but can also throw back the drink. An ex-marine, he didnít shy away from a thrown punch. His marriage to the younger Dubusí mother ended early, and there were two more wives. By contrast, Dubus III is a devoted father and husband who speaks of his family with surprise and longing when heís on the road. ďI will say,Ē Dubus told me, ďthat Iím always surprised at these parental relationships [in my stories that are] fraught with danger, because Iíve had a stable 20-year marriage, Iíve got three beautiful kids, and they live in a stable, structured life, and we have many blessings.Ē

Andre Dubus III is, by all reports, a great dad and husband, and a visit to Youtube will reveal a short video of him making spaghetti sauce for his family in a house he and his brother built by hand. And yetÖ

In Dubusí work, as animals. They can be warm and cuddly, they can protect you, but only to a point. In The House of Sand and Fog, the main character, Kathy, says of her father, ďDad had never really looked at me anyway, but then he stopped doing it at all, would only give me his quiet profile, usually in his recliner in front of the TV.Ē The sins of the father affect the daughters as well, and that novel is based on Kathy losing her fatherís house. ďLook, I inherited this house from my father. Itís paid for,Ē she tells the officers who are there to evict her. This is the house sheís been languishing in after being unable to sustain a healthy relationship, while fighting her own addictions, which seem to spring from the DNA for self-loathing.

But where does this self-loathing come from? In Dubusí second book, the meditative novel Bluesman, father and son are housed together after the loss of the mother, whom both fondly recall. The father is doing the best job he can; the boy is coming into his manhood. He wants to be good, but in the end, he has to leave home like so many boys before him; thereís just no room for lone males. He chooses the military. In the close of the book, son, Leo, is going to bed the night before he will leave for the army. His father is standing at his bedroom door and has asked if the boy will want breakfast in the morning.

The cigarette tip rose in an arc, then burned brighter. Jim blew out the smoke slow and long, as if he were very tired, the way he got after working a double shift, empty, but thatís all right because everythingís done and done right. Jim stood there in the dark another ten of fifteen seconds, not smoking, just standing, and Leo wanted to say something, though he didnít know what. Then his father said from the hallway, ďIíll wake you at 0400.Ē He closed his own door and Leo heard the faint engine rumble of a far-off plane. Heíd also heard the pride in his fatherís voice, just now, when heís used military time on him. (326)

Empty. But thatís all right. Because everythingís done and done right. The analog to this, of course, is the platitudinous ďa womanís work is never done,Ē but here, in Dubus is the word empty. Women are rarely empty. Physically, weíre made to be filled. Our genitals, our reproductive systems, maybe even temperamentally. For women who choose to be mothers (or for the many, many for whom motherhood is not a choice), there is always this secret pleasure, the burden and yes, joy of never being empty, of the child you hold in the slack hours, even if you hated the laundry and the floors and endlessly emptying refrigerator. There are always the children. And women know the words for love feel good and may be all that gets you through; men know that those words shame them with other men (ďLeo wanted to say something, though he didnít know what.Ē) Theirs is a viciously schizoid, a paralyzingly empty position.

Leo, we felt just might, but in the end, the task is too hard, that heroís journey so fraught and fearful the war machine seems better by comparison. The men speak of what they know. They speak in the tongue of war, safe at last, in territory, at least, that they know.

But of course there is the military, and military time here is code for menís language, what they must resort to, a kind of non-emotional pidgin. Leoís father, Jim, a poignantly talented musician, so lost in his own grief at his wifeís death, that part of him is stunted, as if he could not be a whole being without the woman to fulfill the feminine for him, is not a bad dad at all. In fact, there is another father in this story who is also striving mightily to be both a good man and a good father, but like Leoís dad, can not find his wholeness outside of himself, yet refuses to look inward. Leo, we felt just might, but in the end, the task is too hard, that heroís journey so fraught and fearful the war machine seems better by comparison. The men speak of what they know. They speak in the tongue of war, safe at last, in territory, at least, that they know.

By contrast, the character of April in The Garden of Last Days who takes on the persona of Spring at night as an exotic dance, knows that her daughter is the jewel in her life. Never resents it, wishes desperately for a better life for them both than that of their biological destinies. Where AJís wife, Deena, admits to the boredom and loneliness of day in and out child-rearing, and resorts to hair-dye, magazine surfing, and lots of hip swelling ice cream, April take control of her biology and uses it to her advantage. When Bassam, the young terrorist, asks her why she dances, she proffers easy answers, for the money, for my kid, but in the end, she understands that she likes the fact that she can do something very, very few people can do. Like Madonna, she understands the power of her physicality, and wants to use it, rides the razorís edge between benefiting from it, or being consumed by it, as so very many women are.

The opening chapter veers back and forth between setting up the plot and revealing Aprilís condition, her striving, and her love and affection for her daughter which is unequivocal, certain, but like long history or women who have been raped, as one of Dubusí other characters says later in the novel, these are women alone on the continuum of a violent world that often preys on them, and we know Ė and can forgive April because of this Ė that April is a loving mother who is trying to do well by her daughter. April nearly loses her daughter when she takes her to the strip club she works at after her caregiver takes ill, but she is a good mother, a loving one, and in the end, she gives her daughter a dream-life.

It's like poking a tongue into a new hole after the tooth's been ripped out. But at the same time, it's a book that steps out of Dubus' father's literary light, and shines harder and farther.

Not so for men, whose role is to protect, and itís harder to be sympathetic with AJ who has hit his wife, Deena, once or twice and is now estranged from her. Dubus slowly unwinds the tower of stress on him that has its basement in the revelation that he is the product of the rape of his own mother. Yet AJ is a loving father. His love is expressed in ways that canít be sustained. Early in the novel, we learn about his son Cole.

Then AJ would hug him close and kiss him on the head, smell the baby shampoo his wife used on him. It almost hurt to feel this much love. Heíd never felt anything close to it before and it scared him; lying there with baby Cole, heís wanted to cover him with his whole body. Build a steel and concrete house around him. Erect a twelve-foot hurricane fence around that. Drive him places in a tank, and never let anybody close enough to see him or call his name or even know it. (108)

Here is a man who is afraid of the love of his own son, and we sense this is not an extraordinary man, but the fear of wanting to lay oneís whole body on oneís child, smother it with love. Well, what does that sound like? What do we fear in men? That they would be pedophiles. It is a womanís privilege to climb into bed with her babies, as April does at the end of the novel, and ďshe hadnít washed or brushed her teeth but she wasnít leaving. She reached up to the wall switch and flicked off the light.Ē (496) A woman in bed with her child. Nothing strange about that. But a man? Of course, he is afraid, and part of the novelís tension derives from the readerís concern early on that AJ might be just that, a pedophile, what we fear he will do with Aprilís daughter, Frannie, while she is in his care.

And what he does is wrongheaded, but he is not a pedophile, only a man trapped in the role of protector, provider, to the point that it is killing him, and though he is smart, he ends up alone in a cell.

AJ could only think of Cole.

No, he kept feeling him. His small body on his lap, his feet knocking against AJís shins while they ate together somewhere. Or lying down beside him reading a book, his sonís head against AJís arm. How could his father not be with him right now? How could he not be there in their hurricaneproof house, his rifle loaded, guarding the door from whomever these people were? (512)

These people, of course, being the terrorists of 911, and specifically Bassam in the novel as representative of them. Other men who violated the world, who were deluded into actions that rolled over into violence that bled out like a virus to infect the world. In the story, Bassam, has witnessed violence as a child in a public beheading and has stumbled over his ineffective grieving over his brotherís death, stuck in the anger phase of it, and wanting revenge.

Bassamís relationship with his own father is shattered over political and personal miasmas. They can not get the air clear. Itís easier for Bassam to find comfort in the absolutism of militarized religion than in his fatherís nuanced and gentler views of the world.

In The Garden of Last Days, the world of men is revealed in all of its confused dangers. In The House of Sand and Fog, the fatherís actions and strivings result in the sonís death. In Garden, the complex web of characters stands as a metaphor for the complicities required to end in the many deaths that the book racks up.

And where does that leave us? The Garden of Last Days is a book of night-lit shadows, and Dubus takes a flashlight into the private landscape that led to the two upshot lights of the missing New York towers. Itís like poking a tongue into a new hole after the toothís been ripped out. But at the same time, itís a book that steps out of Dubusí fatherís literary light, and shines harder and farther. The man, the young Dubus, is gregarious, yet highly domestic, having woven a web of family and friends he clutches to as if he knows his life depends on it, as if he knows how easy it would be to be his father, as if he knows the sins are always there, at the door, waiting to get in.

They have many names, these sins, but the stories of this father and son literary pair give unflinching voice and light to many of them without judgment or shame. Men find their language of love in whatever desperate and often violent ways they can. In The Garden of Last Days, there is a love song to a missing father, and the only way to win a lost fatherís love is to best him, to play good football, to make a lot of money, or, perhaps, to be the better novelist. The gods must be overthrown if the cycle of sins is to be pre-empted, and if you canít eat your father, at least, you can out-write him.

   


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